Elon Musk’s SpaceX is winning new customers from the war in Ukraine, as sanctions clip Russian rocket launches

March 22, 2022, 7:54 AM UTC

Satellite internet provider OneWeb has been forced to ask its competitor SpaceX for help launching its satellites into orbit after the British firm’s previous launch partner—Russia’s state-owned Roscosmos—tried to pressure the company into rebuking Ukraine war sanctions.

Much like SpaceX’s Starlink, OneWeb is launching a constellation of satellites to deploy a wireless internet connection service. But OneWeb’s recent satellite launches have been suspended since early March after Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, demanded the company comply with certain demands to retaliate against U.K. sanctions.

Days before a scheduled launch of 36 satellites on a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Roscosmos director general Dmitry Rogozin demanded that OneWeb promise its satellites would not be used for military purposes.

Chris McLaughlin, OneWeb’s chief of government, regulatory, and engagement, told New Scientist that he was “surprised” by the request, given that satellites are often used for both civilian and military purposes. OneWeb even markets its services to armed forces, and signed a deal with Airbus in December to provide services for select European militaries.

Rogozin also demanded the U.K. government—which invested in OneWeb to help save the company from bankruptcy in 2020—sell its stake. The U.K. refused, with British Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng saying there was “no negotiation” when it came to OneWeb.

OneWeb’s board voted to suspend its six remaining launches from Baikonur. Arianespace—the French spaceflight provider used by OneWeb to organize the rocket launches—also suspended its use of Soyuz rockets owing to European sanctions.

OneWeb currently has 428 satellites in orbit, or about 66% of its planned fleet. All of its previous satellites were carried on Russian Soyuz rockets launched by Roscosmos. 

On Monday, OneWeb announced that it had found an alternative to Russia’s Roscosmos and its Soyuz rockets: SpaceX, the commercial spaceflight company founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

In a press release announcing the SpaceX deal, OneWeb said that the first launch of its satellites would happen sometime in 2022. SpaceX and OneWeb have a “shared vision for the boundless potential of space,” said OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson. 

Currently, the satellites OneWeb planned to launch in early March are still in Baikonur, as Roscosmos has yet to return them. 

SpaceX runs its own satellite-based internet system through Starlink. The company has launched almost 1,500 Starlink satellites, and plans to have a total of 30,000 satellites in orbit. 

Yet Masterson had earlier said that he didn’t see OneWeb and Starlink as being in direct competition. In an interview last year with CNBC, Masterson said that OneWeb focused on corporate and enterprise customers—including governments—while SpaceX primarily serves individual households.

Starlink made its own operational changes in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rapidly expanding satellite internet coverage to Ukraine just a few days after a tweeted appeal from Ukraine’s deputy prime minister. The company marshaled volunteers from Tesla’s German workforce to help assemble and package terminals for delivery. 

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